By Victoria Law on March 22, 2017
Jenise Britt sees her husband at Sing Sing, one of New York’s 17 maximum-security prisons, at least twice a week. From her job in Bryant Park, it’s only a short walk to Grand Central and the 7:19 train to Ossining. She tries to visit on weekdays to avoid the more crowded weekends, when the noise and nearby bodies make intimate conversations nearly impossible. The twice-weekly visits help the couple remain close despite her husband’s 18-to-life sentence and the fact that his first parole hearing isn’t until 2024.
But New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget means that Britt—and other family members—will have no choice but to contend with crowds, longer waits and the possibility of shorter visits to see their incarcerated loved ones. Buried in the governor’s budget is a proposal to reduce the number of visiting days in maximum-security prisons from seven to just Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, a move that he told Democrats would save the state $2.6 million by eliminating 39 staff positions. Family members and advocates say the cuts will discourage visiting with more crowded visiting rooms, longer waits, and shorter visits, impacting relationships already strained by lengthy prison sentences.
“I don’t think that’s fair,” said 16-year-old Margarita, whose father has been incarcerated since she was three or four years old. “If we have a vacation during the week, we want to see our parents.” She recalls going to visit her father two days before her 15th birthday. “Usually, if we talk on the phone, it’s like, ‘Happy birthday. Have fun,'” she recalled. But that day, they spent several hours together talking, walking around the outside visiting area and playing Monopoly. “Kids—they want to see their parents more,” she added. “[These cuts] are just taking away time from our parents.”
As of March 14, 2017, 50,476 people were incarcerated in New York state prisons. Similar to policing policies and practices across the country, incarceration disproportionately impacts communities of color, particularly African-American communities. Almost half (49 percent) of people in the state’s prisons are Black; the other half are white (24.4 percent) and Latino (24 percent). Sixty percent are parents to living children, and the impact of parental incarceration, like incarceration itself, disproportionately affects families of color. African-American children are seven times more likely, and Latino children are twice as likely, to have a parent in prison as their white peers. Incarceration doesn’t affect just children and parents—other family members, such as spouses, non-married partners, parents and siblings, also feel the brunt of their loved ones’ absence. In-person visits allow families to maintain their relationships despite long periods of separation. But Cuomo’s cuts mean that the 21,525 people in maximum-security prisons face the possibility of fewer—and shorter—visits.
Jolene Russ relies on visits to stay connected to her husband, who has served 17 years of a 49-year sentence at the prison in Elmira. Russ works full-time and typically visits on the weekends, which she describes as “elbow-to-elbow. There’s no room to move.” But there have been times during her husband’s incarceration that her visit couldn’t wait. Last year, for instance, death hit her husband’s family hard—first his father died, followed by his brother and then his nephew.
“Have you ever had to call the chaplain?” Russ asked, her question laden with frustration from repeated experiences. That’s the start of the standard prison procedure for a death in the family—a family member calls the prison chaplain to report the death and the funeral arrangements. The chaplain takes down the information, which prison administrators then verify, a process that may take a few days. Once they do, the prisoner is called into the chaplain’s office, where he is told about the death and the date of the funeral. “That’s the way it goes. There’s no compassion, no sit-down counseling or services offered.”
When her husband’s brother died, Russ still had to call the chaplain. But she took the following day off work and drove the three hours to the prison to tell her husband in person. “We’re able to talk about it,” she explained. “He was able to have a moment to not be within the walls and to lean on me as his wife and just not have to go through that alone in his cell.” The chaplain didn’t call her husband into the office until two days after her visit.
It works the other way as well. Russ recalls a time when she was feeling overwhelmed by the plethora of responsibilities that she had to manage without her husband’s presence and physical support. “I was taken out of work by my physician, and he encouraged me to engage in tasks that would bring me peace and get me organized,” she recalled. She spent that Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday visiting her husband. During those six-hour visits, the couple talked about her tasks and responsibilities. Together, they created a feasible time management schedule and financial budget. In addition, working to help create a budget and schedule enabled her husband to feel like a participating member of the family. Russ recalled him telling her, “For the first time in a long time I don’t feel like your husband that’s locked up. I just feel like your husband.”
Cutting weekday visits would mean longer lines and more crowded visiting rooms. Elmira’s visiting policy dictates that, when the visiting room is overcrowded, visitors who live within 100 miles of the prison are the first to have their visits ended early. But, even though Russ lives nearly 200 miles away, she’s had her visits cut short on weekends as well.
The governor’s budget proposal calls for expanding the use of video visits to replace weekday visits. Russ insists that this won’t be the same. “It would mean not being able to reach across the table and touch his hand or, if we’re having an intimate moment, to kiss his face,” she mused. “It’s human contact.”
Video visits are how 16-year-old Jamaill sees his father, who went to prison before the boy’s first birthday. His father is incarcerated at Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, approximately 260 miles from New York City. The distance means that Jamaill can only visit twice a year. For the past two years, he’s been using the Osborne Association’s video visiting program twice a month. But nothing compares to being able to see his father in person. “I can be myself,” he told Broadly. “I can touch him; we can play cards.” If Jamaill has something personal to tell his father, he doesn’t feel comfortable doing so during a video visit.
Cuomo’s proposed cuts won’t affect him personally, but Jamaill knows firsthand the toll it takes on a family to see each other primarily through video chat. “That’s not right,” he said. “Some people want to see their parents in person instead of seeing them on a television. They might express their feelings more in person.”
He was able to have a moment to not be within the walls and to lean on me as his wife and just not have to go through that alone in his cell.
It’s not just outside family members who will profoundly feel these cuts. Elizabeth Harris went to prison when her daughters were two and twelve. During her 17 years at Bedford Hills, the state’s maximum-security prison, family members brought her daughters to visit at least twice a week, and sometimes even three to four times a week. During weekday visits, the visiting room was less crowded and less noisy. “I was able to spend quality time with them,” she recounted. Harris didn’t need to try to keep her toddler in her seat; instead, the mother and daughter could walk around the visiting room or outside to the play area.
On the weekends, however, the crowds and accompanying noise meant a much different visit. Officers insisted that she keep her toddler from wandering; if they were in the play area, she had to worry that another child might run over or push the two-year-old. Even with her older daughter, weekend visits were a challenge. “You find yourself screaming to have a conversation,” she recalled.
The visits allowed Harris to parent despite her lengthy sentence. “So much happened on visits,” Harris recounted. She recalls one visit with her older daughter, then a teenager. They saw a couple at another table. “It was two women and they kissed. That was her chance to tell me she was attracted to girls,” Harris said. Had they been limited to the crowded and noisy weekend visits, she doesn’t think her daughter would have told her—but because of the less crowded weekday visit, “she was able to have a conversation with her mom.”
By the time Harris was released, her daughters were grown. However, their bond had remained close despite her lengthy absence, which made reacclimating to life outside of prison far easier. “I didn’t have to focus so hard on building a relationship with my children because it was already there,” she said. “I had more energy to focus on finding employment, housing. I wanted to go back to school. I had time to focus on me because I knew our relationship was secure.”
What’s in Cuomo’s proposed budget isn’t necessarily what will be enacted. The Assembly and Senate propose their own budgets. Then the leaders of each house and the governor sit down to thrash out the final budget, which needs to be passed by April 1. Meanwhile, advocates and family members are trying to ensure that visiting cuts aren’t part of the final version.
Russ learned about the proposed visiting cuts from a newspaper article. She then told her husband, who had heard nothing about the changes—even though they would affect him and thousands of others. “It’s not being done through legislation,” she reflected. “It’s being done in the inner workings of the government that most people don’t pay attention to because they’re busy grinding to get their life in order, because their lives are so difficult.” But she’s determined to make sure that the governor—and her legislators—are aware of the impact on family members. She has written letters to Cuomo and to Assemblyman David Weprin, the chair of the Committee on Correction and an opponent of the cuts to visiting hours. She also took the day off work to attend Weprin’s rally in Albany against these cuts. Britt also attended the Albany rally as well as another on the steps of City Hall in New York City. “It was important for me to show up that day,” she said.
State legislators seem to understand their concerns. The budget proposals from both houses restore the $2.6 million for daily visits at maximum-security prisons; the Assembly proposal also “includes new legislation to prohibit the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision from reducing visitation opportunities at maximum security prisons.” Cuomo’s office has not responded to Broadly’s request for comment.
“This [reduced visiting] will be a hardship for a lot of people,” said Britt. Harris, who has now been out of prison for four years, agrees. “Those visits were everything to me,” she remembered. Looking at Cuomo’s proposal to replace in-person visits with expanded video visiting, she asks, “How can you have a personal relationship with someone on a TV screen?”